On June 3rd, the new volume of the series Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard on Peter Paul Rubens’s anatomical studies by NIKI-director Michael W. Kwakkelstein was published by Harvey Miller / Brepols.
The central theme of Rubens’s paintings is the human figure, often represented nude or partially clothed and involved in dramatic action. As a history painter, Rubens’s acclaimed skill in rendering the human body whether male or female, lean or fleshy, mature in years or young, animated or lifeless, vigorous or diseased, heroic or cowering, sensuous or decrepit, idealised or blemished and imperfect enabled him to vie with the greatest artists ever known, while creating increasing demand for his work among Europe’s intellectual, cultural, religious and political elite. His mastery in depicting human figures and their dynamic movements suggests that he followed the example of Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475–1564) and other Italian artists he admired, who made extensive studies of human anatomy. As pointed out by two recent perceptive scholars, however, the robust, muscular male nudes in action who appear in so many of Rubens’s narrative paintings are often anatomically inaccurate. Moreover, and as will become clear in this volume, Rubens’s approach to anatomical study was not closely similar to that of any of his forbears. In many respects his ways of working are comparable to those of Michelangelo, who used the knowledge he acquired through dissection not to pursue verisimilitude but to invent the anatomy of his figures according to his own idea of physical beauty, strength and expression. Yet unlike Italian Renaissance artists such as Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Alessandro Allori (1535–1607), Rubens did not perform or witness dissections and seems to have rarely studied from the live nude model. What, then, was the nature and extent of Rubens’s study of human anatomy? The present volume will offer an answer to that question, while also establishing when and where most of his anatomical works were made and reassessing the issue of their intended purpose.
The Corpus Rubenianum holds a unique place within Art History as one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken. Both its massive scale and sheer duration fully parallel the complexity of the oeuvre of Peter Paul Rubens. In every brushstroke he ever painted, the grand baroque master blended art with literature, art theory with theology, mythology with history. Studying Rubens in this collaborative effort is much like studying the very foundations of European civilization, for the oeuvre of Rubens is a true treasure trove of the principal elements of our culture. Rubens’s compositions are the most fascinating combinations of ideas ranging from kabbalah to Greco-Roman mythology, from optics to image-theology, from linguistics to archeology, or from politics to ethics (not to mention esthetics).
Rubens designed and made over 2500 compositions, most of which were extensively copied. The complexity of his oeuvre is unrivaled. The Corpus is based on the material assembled over several decades by Ludwig Burchard, universally recognized as the foremost scholar in this field. Each part is written by a well-known scholar and the aim is to realize Burchard’s intention of embodying all present-day knowledge of the work of Rubens.
Nevertheless, the Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard endeavour is nearing its completion, with the remaining volumes reaching their final stages. By 2020, Harvey Miller / Brepols is to publish the concluding volumes, and then the immense oeuvre of one of the greatest artists in history will have been catalogued and finally made accessible for further research.